MINNEAPOLIS — It has been three years since Auburn last had an offense without Chuma Okeke.
Danjel Purifoy was Auburn’s second-leading scorer. Jared Harper, Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore were each freshman. Horace Spencer was a sophomore. It was the program’s first winning season in eight years.
With age and experience, the team is now built on seniority, with Bryce Brown and Harper leading the backcourt and Spencer, McLemore and Wiley rotating in the frontcourt.
And then there’s Okeke, Georgia’s Mr. Basketball and, as a sophomore, one of the key components to Auburn’s run to the Final Four.
With him gone, the team has to rely on its experience, but it has been in a system without him, too.
“Chuma’s one of those young guys, so before Chuma it was Danjel, it was Horace, it was Anfernee and we’ve played without Chuma for a period,” Brown said. “That’s why I feel like the experience and years of having each other and being there for each other helps us deal with that because we’ve been in that action before.”
Up to Auburn’s win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Okeke had scored 17 percent of the team’s points and grabbed 25 percent of its total rebounds. In NCAA Tournament games when Okeke has played, Auburn is shooting 51 percent from the floor and 43 percent from beyond the arc.
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On the other end, opponents with Okeke playing are shooting 46 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three.
After Okeke tore his ACL in a win over UNC, a game where Okeke finished with a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds, the team wondered how to move forward. Without its youngest starting player, leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, the gap felt irreplaceable.
Then the team went back to 2016 and had to learn how to, once again, play without Okeke.
“We truly learned just how to play without Chuma,” Brown said. “It took a little adjustment at first, but I just feel like a lot of people stepped up in that moment.”
Against Kentucky, Auburn shot 40 percent from the floor and 30 percent from deep. Despite the lower shooting percentages, however, Kentucky was held to 40 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
A defense that had been strong with Okeke had proven that it could step up without him.
In an offense where Harper and Brown had combined for just 35 percent of total scoring up to the Elite Eight, the pair combined for 65 percent in a push to the program’s first Final Four.
Against Virginia, McLemore added that Okeke’s absence changes the mindset altogether when looking ahead to a potential spot in the national championship.
“Our mindset first and foremost is to do it for Chuma,” McLemore said.
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